Pioneering Spirit May Help Head Off Costly Auto Strikes

There is a real possibility that the nation's auto makers soon will sign another pioneering contract with the United Auto Workers that could strengthen the industry without eliminating more American jobs.

Negotiators are gingerly discussing their new ideas in the UAW's current talks with General Motors and Ford to replace contracts that expire Sept. 14. If the negotiators fail, it could mean a debilitating strike, perhaps at profit-swollen Ford, which is expected to be the union's target company this year.

But even if the bold ideas fail to produce history-making contracts this year, they are too sensible to be discarded.

All of the ingredients are already there for contracts that would give workers job security and a relatively high living standard, and provide management increased profits from higher productivity.

Negotiators in current contract talks are cautiously examining the many ingredients, including the two principal ones:

- An expansion of the UAW's traditional system of protecting the income of individual workers who lose their jobs. This would mean first protecting the worker's job itself and, if that fails, then protecting the individual's income as the union contracts now do.

- Companywide use of a team system of production used so successfully by Japanese management and UAW members at the Toyota-GM auto plant in Fremont. Production there has doubled since the team concept was introduced two years ago.

U.S. auto makers now say they want to use the team concept of production in all of their plants.

The best team systems include such things as reducing the number of job classifications from hundreds to less than a dozen. They also give teams of about six workers each the authority to make major and minor decisions about their jobs, and to share decision making with management on broader corporate issues.

Many workers suspect, with good reason, that some companies use the team system to force them to work faster so that the number of workers can be slashed. And they complain that the companies do it all under the guise of increasing democracy in the workplace.

These rank-and-file suspicions are based on reality. For instance, management at GM wants to put the team system into effect plant-by-plant, with local company and union representatives setting productivity standards, without giving any firm promises of job security in return.

This eventually would put locals in direct competition with one another for survival. The fastest plants live, the slower ones die. This whipsawing has already created serious opposition to the team system in UAW locals around the country.

That danger might be avoided, however, by administering the team systems at a national level so the companies cannot pit members of one union local against another.

The team system has opposition in management's ranks, especially among middle-level supervisors. They fear losing their cherished authoritarian roles because union team leaders would replace many foremen, and supervisors would share power with union representatives.

While many workers and some union leaders worry that the team plan will weaken the union and leave workers open to exploitation by management, the system has its union admirers.

One leader who moderately admires the plan is UAW President Owen Bieber, who says the system cannot work unless auto companies make a commitment to long-term employment for workers.

More enthusiastic than Bieber, at least publicly, is Donald F. Ephlin, the union's top negotiator at GM, who has become the principal target of union foes of the team system.

But Bruce Lee, the UAW's Western regional director and a principal architect of the team system in Fremont, is unrestrained: "The record (at Fremont) will show that we have obtained many of the UAW goals that have eluded us for 50 years using the traditional adversarial methods of collective bargaining.

"Workers at the (Japanese-managed) Fremont plant are the highest paid in the auto industry, they have the best long-term job security provisions, the highest attendance rate, highest productivity rate, make the best-quality products and are proud of their union and the products they build."

Hardly faint praise from a union official. But if Lee is basically correct, and the Fremont plan is adopted nationwide, the resulting labor-management contracts would indeed be major achievements.

The catch for workers is that increased productivity means fewer workers are needed to turn out the same number of cars. Even without the teams, auto productivity has gone up significantly in recent years--an estimated 35% between 1980 and 1985, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Discounting the impact of inflation, labor costs per car produced in the industry dropped 8% during that period.

A possible answer to the workers' demand for job security would be a national contract under which management agrees not to lay off workers because of productivity improvements or a drop in sales until the company:

- Stops subcontracting work that can be done by the company's own employees;

- Stops outsourcing, the practice of buying parts from foreign or domestic companies that do not employ UAW members;

- Stops importing "captives," cars bought from foreign manufacturers and sold here under the label of a U.S. company.

If these and other job-protection steps don't save all of the jobs of U.S. auto workers, then those who are laid off would be entitled to the same income protection now available to them.

Some of the income protectors were pioneered years ago by the UAW. They include long-term guarantees of 95% of the wages and fringe benefits of workers whose jobs are eliminated, retraining programs and a special union-negotiated fund the auto companies can use to develop new businesses that would hire laid-off auto workers.

Carefully planned, innovative ventures in corporate management and labor-management relations could do wonders for the nation's auto industry, and also the economy as a whole since we are all so heavily dependent on the health of that giant industry.

'Flags of Convenience'

America's maritime unions are complaining that President Reagan has improperly and possibly illegally deprived U.S. seamen of jobs by reregistering Kuwaiti oil tankers under the American flag to entitle them to armed U.S. escort through the Persian Gulf.

The reflagging violates "long-established maritime law and U.S. policy requiring all officers and 75% of the unlicensed crew on U.S. flag ships to be U.S. citizens," said Shannon J. Wall, president of the National Maritime Union.

He and other maritime industry leaders are not protesting the protection given to the Kuwaiti tankers. Rather, they object to Reagan's use of a special "national defense waiver" as grounds for bypassing the requirement to staff the ships mainly with U.S. citizens.

U.S. ship radio operators have filed a formal complaint with the Federal Communications Commission seeking to compel at least the use of American radio operators on the Kuwaiti tankers.

Wall said recently that "there are adequate, legitimate American flag tankers owned by Americans and manned by citizen seamen available that could be chartered to transport this oil that would legitimately warrant U.S. Navy protection."

The ranks of American seamen have been diminished dramatically in recent years by increased use of "flag of convenience" ships. Such ships are owned by American firms but carry the flags of Panama, Liberia and other small foreign countries.

That kind of reflagging is done to avoid U.S. requirements for predominantly American crews, who are paid significantly more than most foreign crews, and to sidestep U.S. standards of safety and construction.

Particularly galling to the American seamen is that the Soviet Union is chartering its own tankers to carry Kuwaiti oil. Crews of Soviet citizens operate tankers being protected by Soviet warships. The American unions' objections to the reflagging is less an attack on Reagan's controversial action than an effort to call attention to the widespread use of flag of convenience ships that has cost so many Americans their jobs. So far, though, the unions' effort has failed.

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